HOW FORTUNATE we are to live in Savannah, a city whose historic charm and Southern grace attract so many. Carrying the pride of my adopted hometown, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Minneapolis, known nationally for its bikeability.
My thanks to John Bennett for letting me share that bicycling experience in place of his regular column about biking.
Taking in the midwestern scenery, I noted many similarities to Savannah - a relatively flat landscape filled with extremely friendly people, so many of whom live, work and play in or very near the downtown business district, with parks, stadiums, museums and restaurants within easy reach.
Not only that, but the weather this past weekend was even similar, warm, sunny and a little humid, which made me feel even more at home there.
Of course the weather will be markedly different when January rolls around, a fact that makes the efforts Minneapolis has undertaken to accommodate active transportation - bicycling, walking, skateboarding, etc (but especially bicycling) - that much more striking.
A city that is sometimes so cold in winter that it requires enclosed walkways downtown between buildings has also built an impressive network of multi-use trails for bicycling and other non-motorized options. Ninety miles of paved trails completely separated from car traffic connect neighborhoods to schools, offices, shops, and parks (and when it snows, the city plows the bikeways before plowing the streets!). Surface streets routinely have sidewalks and bike lanes as part of a statewide Complete Streets policy, and bicycle boulevards provide additional routes for bikes and buses but not cars.
As a bicycle advocate, I knew Minneapolis was special - after all, Bicycling magazine recognized Minneapolis as the number 2 city for bicycling in the U.S. this year. Arriving here with my wife Julie, an unabashed automobilist, we started exploring the city using the city's two-year old bike sharing system (Nice Ride MN), where for just six dollars a day or a $65 annual subscription we could make unlimited trips on well maintained bikes equipped with lights and baskets.
We went everywhere on them - to dinner, to visit our friend, to the lakes - even Julie was impressed. We took bikes to Northern Spark, an arts festival where we were among thousands filling the bicycle-and-pedestrian-only historic Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi and several other sites scattered through the city from dusk until dawn.
If only we could have stayed another day, then we could have enjoyed an Open Streets event where two miles of road were closed to cars, similar to the wonderful Atlanta Streets Alive held periodically, most recently May 20.
Taking cars out of the mix using events like Open Streets and facilities such as separated bikeways increase riders' confidence, so that more and more people ride for exercise and to get from here to there. Everywhere we saw so many different kinds of bikes ridden by so many kinds of people it was clear how deeply the community has embraced bicycling, a clear result of the investment the community made toward making bicycling accessible to all.
This was a community that had made bicycling a priority and a way of life.
Why does that matter for them, or why should it matter to us? More people walking and biking produces a healthier population. Shape magazine rated Minneapolis as the fittest city in America, with the highest rates of exercise and lowest rates of asthma and death from heart disease.
According to the Trust for America's Health, Georgia has much higher rates of adult obesity and a staggeringly high 21 percent rate of childhood obesity, 2nd highest among all states and nearly double Minnesota's 11 percent.
As the magnitude of Minneapolis's accomplishments set in, I thought about how and whether Savannah could develop in a similar way. One positive step would be Complete Streets policies for our local governments and GDOT requiring accommodation of bicyclists and pedestrians in road projects.
Another would be dedicated funding for bikeways like that proposed in the upcoming July 31 transportation referendum (more on that to come soon). Minneapolis became a mecca for bicycling by continued and measured improvements over a long period of time - we could do the same with dedication and consistency.